Academic journal article Journal of STEM Education : Innovations and Research

Student Engagement and Completion in Precalculus Precalculus Mega Section: Efficiently Assisting Student Engagement and Completion with Communications and Information Technology

Academic journal article Journal of STEM Education : Innovations and Research

Student Engagement and Completion in Precalculus Precalculus Mega Section: Efficiently Assisting Student Engagement and Completion with Communications and Information Technology

Article excerpt

Abstract

The Precalculus Mega Section project was developed with the main purpose of improving the overall performance of the student body in Precalculus, an important gatekeeper course that affects student engagement and completion, with typical drop/failure rates of over 50 percent. Strategies such as integration of technology and additional practice time with TA support, helped significantly reduce the withdraw and failure rates that prevail today in this course. Although it was carried out in a large group format (150 students), the experimental sections had better outcomes than current, traditional sections in smaller groups taking the same tests. Results show the design choices and underlying assumptions to be promising and cost-effective, and recommendations include testing the model as a substitute for current remedial coursework on campus and beyond.

Introduction

The University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez is the second-largest and STEM flagship campus of the University of Puerto Rico system. The students in most of its majors have to take or test out of the introductory math course, Precalculus. Each semester, more than half of them fail to pass the course, either finishing with a D or an F, or withdrawing from the class altogether. In the fall of 2006, for example, a total of 1,298 students took the course, and 55.86 percent failed. These high failure rates represent a tremendous human, academic and administrative cost.

To date, before the intervention described in the present paper, high failure rates in this class have been addressed through remediation efforts formalized in a so-called "pre-basic," no-credit course that consumes a good amount of institutional time and resources. This remedial course aims at giving the students the content that, because of pre-college educational problems, they lack and need to successfully tackle entry level college mathematics. Remedial courses, however, have shown mixed results at UPRM (Bartolomei, 2006) and elsewhere (Armario, 2010;Redden, 2008.)

Because the budget situation in the public university translates into administrative demands for frugality, especially when advocating change, the idea behind the design and execution of the intervention described here was straightforward and relatively inexpensive. We wanted to design and implement a pilot, experimental section of the course that: 1) improved student learning and passing rates in the pre-calculus course, and 2) was cost-effective in terms of the allocation of institutional resources. To make the course cost-effective, we gave it a large lecture format. To make it more effective in promoting student learning and achievement, we implemented a set of technological supports, including the use of clicker technology in the classroom to provide instant feedback to the lecturer, and added an additional hour of TA-guided discussion and problem solving.

Research Design

Given the context and boundary conditions, the intervention had to engage students in the classroom, be gentle enough to prevent massive drops, be simple and cost-effective enough to be replicated if successful, and still provide tools to improve student learning. We wanted to test its impact relative to the other traditional sections. We also wanted to test whether such an intervention could have an effect on future learning, with the idea that the habits acquired in the section may carry over and increase the students' chances of sustaining success afterwards.

Because we were developing an intervention that, if effective, would hopefully turn into institutional policy, the design had to be amenable to comparison with other sections of the same course. The Academic Affairs Division on campus assigned a randomized, representative sample of incoming freshmen, stratified to include proportionate numbers of students per college (Arts, Sciences and Agriculture) and family income. To facilitate comparison, the students enrolled in this experimental course used the same textbook and syllabus and took the same departmental examinations (three midterms and one final) used for the traditional small-section course. …

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